Brenda Howard knew who she was. She knew her sexuality, preferences, and that fighting against unjust laws was her life’s calling. She identified as a bisexual, polyamorous woman who embraced kink, and she wanted others to know it too. She spent her life fighting tirelessly to convey that like others in the LGBTQ+ community, her sexuality and desires were normal and not subject to change. Her bravery and audacity to fight to normalize queer life at a time where anti-sodomy laws still existed was one of the many reasons why she is remembered as ‘The Mother of Pride’.
Brenda Howard was born on December 24, 1946 and grew up in the Jewish community of the Bronx. After high school, she went on to study nursing at a local community college and graduated with an associates degree. Shortly thereafter, her advocacy begun. In the early 60s, she joined a commune of draft resisters and like-minded folk and became an anti-war activist. She centered intersectionality in her advocacy and outwardly criticized the movement when it was taken over by men.
During this time, she also sought out queer communities. She joined the Gay Liberation Front, Act Up, and Queer Nation and retained active membership throughout her life. She rose to the position of chair within the Gay Activists’ Alliance Speakers Bureau and held that position for many years. Howard also was involved with the Coalition for National Gay Rights, an early member in BiPAC, and served on the Steering Committee of Stonewall 25.
Where Howard didn’t find queer communities, she organized them. Her excellence in organizing and tenacious nature were instrumental in progressing the fight for LGBT rights in many ways. She helped guide a gay rights law through NYC’s city council in 1986. In 1987, she founded the New York Area Bisexual Network to help coordinate services to the growing bisexual community. She kept up-to-date recorded messages on the NYABN hotline aimed at informing anyone who would call about local events or protests, and personally returned thousands of calls to the line. Six years later, she helped lobby for the inclusion of bisexuals in the march on washington for gay, lesbian, and bisexual rights. She founded the first Alcoholics Anonymous groups for bisexuals and was a co-facilitator of a bisexual S/M discussion group. Pride month can also be attributed to her work, as she organized the first week-long slate of activities that were the precursors for what we celebrate today, and was a proponent of associating the word “Pride” itself with the movement. Howard was arrested many times while working as an activist, as were her fellow organizers. She always exhibited resilience, one time reading pornographic novels loudly in the jail to further resist and, as her friend Marla put it, become as “much of a pain in the rear as possible so they'd not want to hold us any longer than absolutely necessary”.
Brenda Howard passed away from colon cancer on June 28, 2005, on the 35th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. She is survived by her partner Larry Nelson, who identifies as straight. After her passing, he recorded a message memorializing her accomplishments and how much she meant to everyone who knew her, in addition to the pride movement. He held up a sign in her honor labeled #stillbisexual, and went on to say how “she was never confused about her sexuality”, and how he “wanted others to acknowledge that she and those like her knew themselves, and that their sexuality was and should be seen as legitimate”. She is posthumously honored by many different organizations today. The Trevor Project, The Equality Forum, and the National LGBT Wall of Honor commend her work as a trailblazer. The ‘Brenda Howard Award’ was created in 2008 by the New York branch of PFLAG, the first award of its kind to be named after an out bisexual person. Brenda Howard’s lifetime advocacy for intersectionality in LGBTQ rights impacted not only the future of bisexual rights, but that of the entire queer community. She was known to wear a pin labeled “Bi, Poly, Switch- I know what I want”. She knew who she was, and her place in the movements fighting for marginalized people. Her legacy persists, and serves as an inspiration to revisit our own places in the movements that surround us now.